Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Norman Kingdom of Sicily

The Saracens in Sicily

The same restless energy which drove the Northmen out of their native country drove the Normans out of Normandy, and led them to seek adventures in other lands. And how, even before William of Normandy conquered England, a Norman adventurer made himself ruler of Sicily is one of the most picturesque chapters of European history.

Sicily at this time was, in theory, still part of the Eastern Empire. In reality it had long been in the possession of the Saracens, who had also overrun the southern states of the Italian Peninsula. These states were, at the same time, full of internal unrest, their petty chiefs frequently quarrelling with each other. They were, as well, a bone of contention between the Emperor of the West and the Emperor of the East, who each claimed them as part of his Empire, while the pope also had his eye upon them.

We find the Greeks now fighting against Saracens, now trying to subdue some native rebellious chief. Now Greek Emperor and German Emperor join against the Saracens, or again, Greeks and Saracens join in routing the Germans. In the general turmoil there was room enough for the adventurous free-lance. Norman adventurers travelled far and were always ready to lend their swords to any side which would pay them, and just as ready to change sides. And ere long we find them taking part in the fray.

Chief among these Norman adventurers were the sons of Tancred of Hauteville. They were "of middling parentage, neither very low nor very high." There were twelve brothers, among whom William of the Iron Arm, Robert Guiscard, or the Wily, Humphrey, and Roger are the most famous. There was no scope for their ardent and ambitious spirits in their native village, so they set forth to seek their fortune by their swords. They "journeyed through divers places, in military fashion, seeking gain, and at last, by God's providence, reached Apulia, a province of Italy."

Robert Guiscard

Soon we find Iron Arm and Humphrey, with their followers, in the service of the Greek Emperor, helping to rout the Saracens. But when the fight was over, and the spoil was divided, the Normans considered that they did not receive their fair share. They complained loudly, but instead of listening to their demands, the Greek general insulted their leader. Thereupon the proud adventurers determined to avenge the insult. And passing over to the mainland, they roused the Normans who had already settled there. In many battles they defeated the Greeks, and at length put an end to their rule. They won Pope Nicholas II to their cause, and at his hands Robert Guiscard received the title of duke. Thus a Norman adventurer "of middling parentage" became "Robert, by the grace of God and of St. Peter, Duke of Apulia and of Calabria, and future Duke of Sicily by their aid."

It was Roger chiefly who carried out the conquest of Sicily. But it was a long and terrible struggle. Many towns were laid in ruins, and much blood was shed before Norman rule was established in the island. In 1072, indeed, Robert gave his brother Roger the title of Count of Sicily, but it was nearly twenty years later before the last town submitted to him. Long ere this Robert Guiscard was dead, and his son Roger Borsa ruled as duke. At the good age of seventy Roger the great count also died, and was succeeded by his son, also called Roger. This Roger made up his mind to unite all the Norman conquests in Sicily and Italy under one rule. But to do this he felt that he must have the title of king.

At this time two popes, Anacletus II and Innocent II, were struggling for the papal throne. Roger supported Anacletus, and in return received from him the title of king. And on Christmas Day, 1130, he was crowned at Palermo with great magnificence. Thus Sicily began its long and chequered career as a kingdom. Yet although Roger was really the first Norman king of Sicily (his father having merely held the title of count), he is generally known as Roger II.

Roger had attained his ambition, but it cost him ten years of war. All Europe seemed to gather against him. The Emperor of the East began to fear the growing power of these upstart Normans who had wrested Sicily from the Empire. The German Emperor Lothaire, the King of France, Louis VI, the King of England, Henry I, and Pope Innocent II, all, for one reason or another, were against him, besides which there were rebels in Italy itself.

For a time Roger suffered many defeats. But in the end he conquered, and he even induced Pope Innocent, after the 1189 death of Anacletus, to confirm him in his title of king. But the dynasty he founded did not last long, and with the death of Tancred in 1194 Norman rule in Sicily came to an end.